Over the June 23-25 weekend, box-office blockbuster Wonder Woman grossed a rousing $25 million in North America, the second-best showing in history for a superhero film in its fourth outing behind Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.
Wonder Woman is a summer water-cooler sensation in the U.S. In addition to earning glowing reviews, the Warner Bros. and DC movie — featuring a female superhero and directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins — has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist, coming at a time when the lack of female representation behind and in front of the camera is making major headlines.
Already, Wonder Woman has become the top-grossing live-action movie directed by a female director with north of $657 million in global ticket sales through June 27.
Revenue in the U.S. and Canada accounts for $322 million, or 49 percent of the bottom line, compared with roughly $336 million to date internationally, or 51 percent of total revenue (hardly a poor showing). Still, in many cases a Hollywood tentpole collects 60 to 65 percent of its total take from the international box office.
So why is Wonder Woman following a different course?
"Historically, an origin superhero film does big business domestically," says Warner Bros. distribution chief Jeff Goldstein.
Case in point: rival Disney and Marvel's Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), likewise featuring a superhero who has strong American roots but isn't a well-known comic book hero overseas, grossed $176.7 million domestically (48 percent) and $193.9 million internationally (52 percent). Sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) made huge gains overseas, earning $714.3 million internationally (64 percent) compared with $259.8 million domestically (36 percent). Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy also made strides offshore with each successive film.
Deadpool is another example, with 46 percent of its total earnings ($783.1 million) coming from North America, and 54 percent from overseas. (The sequel has just begun production).
Also, Wonder Woman has vastly overperformed in the U.S., throwing off the curve, according to numerous analysts. There's also the matter of Wonder Woman featuring a female superhero.
One country where Wonder Woman has lagged well behind other superhero fare is Russia. "Superhero movies with a woman as the main character are rather untypical, which has had some impact on the box office performance of Wonder Woman," notes Russia's Exhibitor's Bulletin. So far, Wonder Woman has earned $8.4 million in Russia, compared with $27.8 million for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which debuted earlier this summer (the original Guardians earned $23.5 million).
Russia is proving problematic for many Hollywood films of late. But one market that Hollywood relies on heavily is China, where Wonder Woman has grossed roughly $88 million, behind expectations. Box-office analysts in the Middle Kingdom note the superhero character isn't well known expect to hard-core geeks. Furthermore, movies from DC Comics haven't been able to match Marvel titles in China.
Warner Bros. and DC's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice topped out at $96 million in China in 2016, compared with $181 million for Marvel's threequel, Captain America: Civil War the same year.
Foreign audiences also remain more enamored with celebrities than U.S. moviegoers — Wonder Woman stars relative newcomer Gal Gadot — evidenced by two 2017 summer tentpoles, Johnny Depp's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Tom Cruise's The Mummy. Both those films have fallen on their sword domestically but found treasure overseas.
Disney's Dead Men Tell No Tales has limped to $180.6 million in North America, compared with $519 million to date overseas, including more than $170 million in China. The Mummy has earned a mere $70 million domestically, versus $275 million internationally to date.
While the international marketplace is key, Hollywood studios get far more back from theaters in North America, or roughly 50 percent from every ticket sold, compared with approximately 40 percent from international cinema owners. The return in China is just 25 percent, although studios have minimal marketing costs there.
"Wonder Woman has been a welcome outlier on so many fronts, but particularly the near 50-50 split between the North American and international box office is a departure from what we have been accustomed to seeing from typical blockbuster titles like Transformers 5, The Mummy, Fate of The Furious and Pirates and of course most superhero films that generate the lion's share of their revenue outside of the U.S," says box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of comScore. "There are likely a number of reasons for this but often lesser-known characters in the international territories require at least one installment to get their sea legs so to speak (much like the first Captain America — and this could bode well for the next Wonder Woman."
Patrick Brzeski, Rachel Ettlinger and Vladimir Vazlov contributed to this report.